A huge US aircraft carrier yesterday arrived off the coast of the typhoon-hit Philippines, offering hope of a dramatic uptick in aid to destitute survivors as officials buried scores of rotting corpses.
The USS George Washington, with 5,000 sailors aboard, headed an eight-strong flotilla of US vessels bearing badly needed equipment, supplies and expertise for the thousands left homeless and hungry by one of the strongest storms in history.
However, almost a week after Typhoon Haiyan swept through the country’s central islands, killing thousands and leaving a lawless security vacuum in its wake, desperation was still apparent and many of the dead remained unburied.
“I do feel that we have let people down,” said UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos, who had visited the shattered city of Tacloban on Wednesday.
“Those who have been able to leave have done so. Many more are trying. People are extremely desperate for help,” she told reporters in Manila.
About 110 corpses were interred in a mass grave yesterday before heavy-digging machinery broke down, Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez said.
They were placed at the bottom of a huge pit that was expected to be several layers deep by the time it is covered over with earth.
“There are still so many cadavers in so many areas. It’s scary,” Romualdez said, adding that retrieval teams were struggling to cope.
“There would be a request from one community to collect five or 10 bodies and when we get there, there are 40,” he said, describing aid agencies’ response to the crisis as too slow.
US President Barack Obama urged Americans to donate generously to the former US colony. US officials said relief channels were slowly opening up with the reopening of a main road.
Ships and planes from Asia-Pacific nations and Europe are also converging on the Philippines, bearing food, water, medical supplies, tents and other essentials to a population in dire need of the basics of life.
British Prime Minister David Cameron dispatched the biggest vessel in the nation’s fleet, a helicopter carrier, while heavy transport planes carrying equipment such as forklift trucks have already arrived.
The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a coordinating body for British aid charities, said it had raised ￡23 million (US$37 million) in the first 48 hours of launching an appeal for the Philippines.
“The public’s reaction to the sheer devastation that has been left by Typhoon Haiyan is quite simply remarkable. We are so grateful for the huge amount of donations which are vital to fund the work done by our emergency teams,” DEC chief executive Saleh Saeed said.
However, on the ground, the meager aid that was getting through was still inadequate, with distribution hampered by fears of armed looters and by broken infrastructure.
Sick or injured people lie helplessly among the ruins of buildings, while those with the energy try to leave a place that resembles hell.
Efren Nagrama, area manager at the civil aviation authority, said conditions were “very dire now” as he surveyed the filthy stream of humanity at Tacloban’s battered airport clamoring to get a flight out.
“You see hundreds coming to the compound every day. People who have walked for days without eating, only to arrive here and be made to wait for hours or days under the elements,” he said.
“We need more manpower and more equipment,” Romualdez pleaded. “A six-day-old body is quite heavy. You would need three or four people to carry it.
“I cannot use a truck to collect cadavers in the morning and then use it to distribute relief goods in the afternoon,” he added.
City officials estimate that they have collected 2,000 bodies, but say many more need to be retrieved. The UN fears that 10,000 people may have died in Tacloban city alone, but Philippine President Benigno Aquino has described that figure as “too much.”
The WHO says there are significant injuries that need to be dealt with — open wounds that can easily become infected in the sweltering tropical heat. Experts warn that a reliable supply of clean drinking water is vital if survivors are not to fall victim to diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and death, especially in small children.